We live in a rapidly changing world and there is no guarantee that the strategies that got us to where we are today will get us to where we want to be tomorrow. Innovation and entrepreneurship have become the world’s core values and you, my friend, “can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the sun from setting.”
But who impacts this change? The answer is obvious. Of course, it is Armenians. That’s what any Armenian would say, right? As a completely objective party in this discussion, I would say I’m in agreement.
Armen Orujyan, the Founder Chairman Emeritus of one of the world’s leading entrepreneurship platforms called Athgo Corporation, is a ‘’Global Armenian’’ and one whose actions impact the change mentioned. Nearly 10,000 young innovators, entrepreneurs, and students from over 600 universities in 80 countries were provided by financial, intellectual and network capacities with the help of Athgo’s pioneering initiatives. The former advisor to Facebook and the architect for innovative ecosystems leads Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST), which impacts the future-shaping work of scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs in Armenia and beyond.
Repat Armenia interviewed Armen Orujyan about his life, challenges and the lessons learned, in order to share some of his insight about change and success to our community.
-Armen, you were born in the Soviet Armenia and moved to the US at the age of 15. Was it for education? Tell us about this period of your life.
-It was for better opportunities, I suppose. We had no intention of moving. I personally grew up in an environment that taught me to not fancy the West, having attended a Party-oriented school with staff who were Party members, essentially curated to enter that lineage. I remember my family was in line to get an apartment, we were in the 6th year of waiting; we were in line for a telephone line and it was the 10th year maybe; and we were in line to buy a car, that was also some 10 years or so of wait.
In 1986, my parents went to Paris and when they came back, their stories and all they brought back, both in stories and physical objects, really made me think. There was a shift in me. How is it possible that one could enter a store have options and buy what they need, at any time? To this extent, when we were leaving, I had already turned 15 and questioning what’s real, what’s true, and what’s not around me. But to be honest with you, the first six months I was conflicted in the States. Everything was strikingly foreign for me; I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anyone, I was at a sensitive, transitional age feeling like I was thrown into an abyss, and I could not even relate with the Armenians who were already there. To top it off, we didn’t have any money. Our family was allowed to take $90 per person, so we came to the United States with $360. It was fun...a different type of fun.
The unnerving thing is, we ended up having only three hours to pack and leave. We were given the permission to leave the country but for about a year we could not find airline tickets. The very planes to the States would fly nearly empty and somehow there were no tickets in the market. When we finally did get tickets, they were for a flight three hours later. While these days I respond with incredulity to meeting someone on such short notice, we had managed to move four people across the world.
-This is ‘’a perfect background’’ for failures and, in parallel, for being bold and result-oriented. What was the most important lesson you learned during those years?
-I have failed many times during the years. Some were more painful, and educational than others. The big profound one, and I don’t always tell this story, was at 19 years of age when I was trying to establish a company before the existence of Google and Amazon. I worked at a shopping mall with a friend who was a computer wizard. His was an American who was 18 years senior with a great deal of experience in software development, which was quite rare those days.
When we realized that people want information about products on sale, we came up with a wild idea. ‘What if we created an online place where people would go for general retail information as well as the respective discounts.’ I should note that it’s ‘93 and that is not exactly commonplace. Amazon was founded in 1994 and Google even later. We would be offering online shopping. Online shopping in 1993, right? Who knew? And I actually went and purchased an associated phone line - 1-800- Shopper, since it was a big thing to be on the billboards. I actually also bought the domain name shopper.com.
We worked on this concept for seven months, I poured in all my resources, and we developed it until we required additional financing to bring the website to the market. It was about a week before we would get the closing meetings with our investors, when through a blood test for mole removal, we discovered that my partner had AIDS. Not HIV, he was far beyond HIV...They gave him a few months to live and naturally he was devastated. This was early 90s and you didn’t have the same cocktails then that would guarantee that you were going to survive.
Unfortunately, he lost the battle. For me, I not only lost a friend, but I lost my dream as well. I had been thinking, “This is my ticket to the future. There is nothing in the world that can stop me; I would be a billionaire as this 19 year old kid that had nothing and now has this one in lifetime opportunity.”
What was the lesson learned from this? Actually, absolutely nothing at the time. It was simply painful and dispiriting. I was not prepared to take a hit of that nature. I was too young and too unaware. I had given up on school, spent all my money, and given all my energy to the project. As a couple of years went by, I began pondering what happened - I started by thinking about what I lacked at the time of my failure.
I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to lead this forward by myself because I had no technology background. I could not code. I had blown all my money so I had no financial capacity to move anything from the existing project forward, and because I was new to the United States, I had no networking capacity to be able to find a new partner or a replacement team. All my capacities were insignificant. Seeing all this, and it would become clearer as time went by, I concluded that you cannot commit to a project if you do not have the capacities required to lead to its fruition. I’ve still failed since but less so and with lesser consequences because my calculations were now almost always present from that point on.
Who has been your greatest mentor?
Mentors are a great help in bringing about a change in you to aid in your success. I had multiple mentors, but the one that stands out is a gentleman who has passed away. Gary Allison had the most impact on me, entering my life accidentally and leaving too, suddenly. I would only realize much of what I learned from him after his passing. If only I was a bit more aware... It has nothing to do with your intellectual capacity. There are a lot of smart people who are paralyzed by their unawareness. The awareness was a key thing that was lacking in me as well. He was one of those characters that would never tell you what to do, and that’s very important for mentorship, as opposed to coaching.
Mentorship is a much broader engagement that provides you with general knowledge to fill gaps. Gary even managed to teach me a lesson during his funeral. He had previously introduced me to then vice president Al Gore, which was a huge shock for my 23-year-old self, but it was during the funeral, when the Vice President got up to speak, that I realized Gary Allison had given Al Gore his first job. There was something in his character that did not require him to drop names or boast. He was a subtle individual in many respects, living an unassuming life. Even in passing he taught me a lesson in humility, a lesson of the bigness of an individual. That day, Al Gore admitted that he would probably not have been where he was that day if it weren’t for Gary. The same goes for me.
-“There is no magic in success, it’s all about the right calculations.” This is a quote from your TEDx Talk. What calculations should we do as a country in order to succeed. What are our individual capacities, rewards and time scale?
-A country is no different than an individual. You take people out of the country and you will have simply an empty, uninhabited space, a desert so to speak. Whatever capacity the citizens of country lack, that is what the country is missing. When you ask what type of calculations a country should do, you ought to simply look at the Intellectual, Financial, and Network capacities of its Citizens, and thereby of the country. The Intellectual and Financial capacities are easier to grasp. There are a number of ways to measure a country’s network capacity. The key element is does it have favorable rules and regulations for people to grow and prosper. There is a reciprocal relationship between the Citizens and the State. I have written extensively about this. If the level of reciprocity is low, either the citizens get up and leave, or in contrast they become Persona Non Gratas.
As much of Armenia is rehabilitating and growing, it has many areas that we need to improve. Armenia did not get to where it is today in a day. It won’t be a great deal of exaggeration, if we say that it took us nearly two millennia to get to this point. Right now it seemingly acts as a teenager. In many instances, almost as if an orphaned teenager. Why? Because it has been under someone’s dominance or protection for centuries, except of few years here and there where it experienced independence. Yet, not enough to build a culture of freedom. Then, it accidentally came into existence when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was none of this parenting happening to this nation to prepare it for, ‘one day you’re going to be independent, you’re going to be successful, so take this skill, learn that skill, build this capacity…’. The country and its people are left to figure things out, and in a jungle of sort where international order favors the strongest, the most capable, and the most connected.
We must unfortunately have to wait until our people have accumulated the intellectual capacity that is not only strong, but it is competitive, for instance in science and technology. We must accumulate financial capacity in terms of wealth and assets among others. We need to assemble networking capacity through favorable internal rules and policies and strategic partnerships.
We also cannot disregard that every day you wake up as Armenia, 200 other countries are trying to figure out how to do better than you. Which means, if push comes to shove, they are going to push you and shove you for them to get ahead of you. For us to become competitive, to become better than who and where we are, we have to become really self-aware. We must stop deflecting and suggesting that it is always someone else’s problem, and instead, stop, take a breathe, and take a notice of our own actions. To become aware where we made and continue making mistakes. If you don’t know the problem, you cannot find a solution. There is then nothing to fix. You are simply great. But is that true?
-“Every problem is an opportunity.” Can you identify the problems Armenians have today and how we can transfer them into opportunities?
-It’s very important for us to step back and look at ourselves as individuals as well as a country. That’s one thing I would say about the people. On a country level, here’s an important thing: 27 years is really very little time in historical terms, but a long time in human years. We expect too much and too quickly, because we are here and right now. Unfortunately, the world does not work in such fashion. It is not designed for a single individual nor for now. It evolves and it has its own internal clock, which at times, can take centuries to show a difference.
The year 1991, provided sort of a tabula rasa, meaning you could just go in any direction. I think in Armenia there are opportunities to create our own infrastructure, particularly through science and technology. This space is moving forward and growing exponentially globally. It is our anchor, our future to focus our resources on.
Today, we don’t have competitive education on an international level, we don’t have a single university in the top 1000. Today, we don’t receive the type of education needed for the global marketplace. When we change that, we will very quickly become competitive and equipped with the skill set necessary to move up the global pyramid. Armenia in a way is fortunate because the culture of education exists, a culture which appreciates the sciences, mathematics, and applied subjects. Many places where I have worked at, the culture of deep science does not exist. One is constantly questioning why he/she has to learn physics, why chemistry? Not to say that we do not have people like that, but the principal culture exists propelling us to higher education in science and technology and this is critical. This is the time we need to utilize to make that leap forward, and should we be successful, great prosperity awaits the entire nation.
-What is the role of Global Armenians in nation building process in the Diaspora and in Armenia?
-I am a diaspora Armenian myself. If you tried to tell me what my role should be, I would not take that very well. Everyone is right to respond that way. I think creating reciprocal opportunities is were the secret lies. We all have certain ties to Armenia, either by blood, affinity or culture, and many only have that. It is unrealistic to expect that designating or worse, forcing a role on anyone would produce positive results.
For me personally, I had both reasons. Naturally, I was born and raised here and coupled that with the reciprocal relationship afforded by my partners here made it possible for me to make the move. I think it’s critical to create those reciprocal opportunities where diaspora Armenians will benefit, and because of that they will get involved. And until we create that true reciprocity, we are going to be entangled in this emotional ‘have to, must to’ which doesn’t create any real engagement, even if you come and stay for a month or two. You are very quickly going to run out and do your thing. So it’s very important to create this reciprocal opportunity to involve the whole of the Armenian diaspora.
-Last but not least, what inspires you the most?
-Interesting question to ask. I love innovation and the concept of human and systems evolution, transformation. So when I’m involved in opportunities that transform people, it is encouraging and very inspiring. I can say with pride that most of my engagements have been on making an impact, be it on Armenians, on youth, and on disadvantaged in general, be it women, poor, or uneducated.
My experiences have taught me to try not to interfere with the decisions of individuals. Impact them, yet not directly. I care a great deal about self-awareness, encouraging people to ask themselves ‘What am I about? What is it that I have, what is it that I’m seeking, and how do those things align?’ While I may not give the answers, I enjoy helping my mentees figure themselves out. It’s very fulfilling to see how people transform. Seeing the changes in the environment, the opportunities for people that I have created, where some have even made much more money than I have, that I probably ever will, their success, however pretentious it may sound, is truly inspirational.
Written by Tamar Najarian
Edited by Rimma Yeghiazarian